When looking at improving your performance on your bike one of the most important things you can look at is your pedal stroke. Improving your pedal stoke will help you produce more power and use less energy doing it, which helps you ride faster and longer.
This makes the pedal stroke a much talked about but often misunderstood subject. And the most persistent rumor about the pedal stroke centers on how you can “add” to your power by pulling up on the backstroke.
The idea is that by pulling up with the trail leg you can add to the power being generated by the lead leg, resulting in a more powerful pedal stroke. And while you may feel that pulling up on the backstroke helps, the truth is that it wastes energy and results in less pedaling power. The extra power that has been seen in some studies didn’t come from pulling up, it came from a stiffer interface with the pedal (you can read this article for more on how clipless pedals really work).
When you look at how the body works you see that trying to “add” another muscle to a movement by consciously making it work harder doesn’t result in more power. In fact, it usually results in less power and efficiency.
Your brain only has so much neural “juice” to put into an activity. When you call on that neural juice to get a muscle to work in an unnatural way it takes some of the neural juice that is going to the other muscles to focus on this new task. This loss in neural juice results in less power coming from those muscles, often much less than what the other muscles “add” back in.
A good example would be using the lower back when deadlifting. Top lifters know that using your lower back doesn’t “add” to the overall power output, it results in less power because the hips lose more power than the lower back adds back in.
But you often see novice lifters using their lower back to get more weight off the ground, often with a weight belt to help compensate for it. They’ll tell you that they can feel how lifting that way helps them and they will point to the lower weights they have to use when they don’t as “proof” of the need to do it that way.
When we look at it this way you can see how misguided this mindset is. Using bad form at first because it helped you in the short term doesn’t mean that is the right way to lift, it is a bad habit that will eventually rob you of performance and result in pain and injury.
This is exactly what happens when you try to pull up on the backstroke to “add” more muscles to the pedal stroke. You don’t add the pulling muscles power to the same pedal stroke, you change the pedal stroke by taking away from the neural juice going to the hips so you can focus on pulling up.
Sure, you add some power back in but it is a net loss, plus you are burning energy faster to fuel this unnatural movement. This is really what the video where the rider did better on flats than clipless pedals tells us – pulling up is an inferior pedal stroke in every way to simply pushing down hard with the lead leg and letting the trail leg just do its thing.
Another reason for this is because the body is set up to work most efficiently through the use of Passive Mechanics. These are when your body automatically triggers a reactive movement in response to another. In this case, when we drive down hard with one leg and activate the hips, the hip flexors on the other leg are automatically triggered. This is how we run – a strong push with the body reflexively bringing the trail leg up to get into place for another strong push.
They have shown in runners that when you try to override the body’s natural way of moving and have a runner try to pull up harder when running it takes away from his lead leg’s power and slows him down. And this is why you see the decreases in power and efficiency when looking at riders in the Morneix and Korf studies who pull up on the backstroke to “add” more muscles to the pedal stroke.
By trying to add more muscles into the pedal stroke you take away so much from the real prime movers of the pedal stroke – the glutes and hamstrings acting at the hip joint – and you end up with a weaker, less efficient pedal stroke.
And no, putting stress on these muscles in an unnatural way is not a good strategy for “spreading the stress” or “giving other muscles a break”. Again, this sounds great in theory but it just isn’t how the body works. Your body naturally cycles through different muscle fibers during cyclic endurance activities so it has the whole “give other muscles a break” thing covered without us reverting to a screwed up pedal stroke.
BTW, this is one of the reasons that strength training improves endurance. By activating and strengthening more muscle fibers, you give your body access to more muscle fibers to cycle through when pedaling the bike.
Plus, runners run a loooooooong way without needing to switch the way they run to give other muscles a break. They also do it without a seat to sit down on or the mechanical advantage of the bike itself. If they don’t need to then I doubt we do either.
The biggest lie the bike industry got us to believe was that just because we are on a bike the rules of movement change. We hear all the time that riding a bike is “different” in some way but that isn’t true – how we optimally move doesn’t change when we get on our bikes and the goal should be to look at how to apply optimal movement to the bike, not apply some engineering based theory that has no basis in reality.
Pulling up in any way at any time is a bad habit and a big reason why riding flats will make you a better rider. By forcing you to pedal properly you’ll produce more power, do it more efficiently and put less wear and tear on your body. Once you have this technique down you can apply it to clipless pedals as well and get much more out of them than you were before.
Right now a lot of riders reading this are in a weird spot because they are very good at applying an inferior pedal stroke. I know that makes people uncomfortable when I say that but it is the truth – pulling up has been shown at every turn to be the inferior way to pedal your bike.
When these riders try to use the better technique that flats force them to use they actually see a dip in their performance, which is tough for anyone to deal with. Even though it usually only lasts a week or two before they get the new pedal stroke dialed in, it can still be hard to get through those first learning experiences.
But you have to be willing to suffer that dip to see the breakthroughs in performance on the other side of it. And that all starts with changing the story you are telling yourself about any need to pull up to add power to the pedal stroke.
Once you fully buy into the truth about the pedal stroke you won’t look at the learning curve the same way. Instead of getting frustrated at the dip you will be motivated by the knowledge that you will be a much better rider when you get rid of the bad habits that are unknowingly holding you back. And perhaps even a little pissed at whoever convinced you that pulling up “added” anything to the pedal stroke.
Check out the first section of the Flat Pedal Revolution Manifesto to see the science that does exist on the pedal stroke and how it points to this same conclusion. At the end of the day I just hate to see people being limited by the myths and lies that they’ve been told about clipless pedals or the need to pull up on the backstroke.
Until next time…
MTB Strength Training Systems